The Beaver wasn’t the film I was expecting to see. I was expecting an offbeat drama with hints of black comedy, a story of redemption, with quirky, eccentric characters at its core. This is certainly what the trailer hinted at, if I remember rightly. What Jodie Foster has served up is far more stark, far more harsh and far more uncompromising than I was prepared for.
Mel Gibson stars as Walter Black, a middle-aged man at the absolute nadir of depression. Craving only alcohol and sleep, his emotional numbness has seen him drift far from his wife, Meredith, and his two sons, young Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and teenager Porter (Anton Yelchin).
Separated, drunk and alone in a hotel room, Walter makes a fumbling attempt to take his own life, but it’s at this point that something clicks over in his mind, and he begins to communicate with both himself and everyone else through a glove puppet, the beaver of the title. For reasons that are never detailed, the Beaver speaks with the accent of an East London taxi driver, and unlike Walter, is upbeat and forthright.
Commanding Walter to get his life back on track, the beaver at first appears to be a positive development in his recovery. While his wife, Meredith, is understandably bewildered at her husband’s insistence on talking to her through a puppet, she’s glad to see that Walter’s finally engaging with his young son again, even though his relationship with his eldest is still frosty, to say the least.
What all this points to is a tale of redemption that is typically Hollywood. But just when events look as though they’re going to take a mawkish or obvious turn, writer Kyle Killen takes his story down a different, less contrived route.
It’s revealed fairly early on that Walter is the heir to his father’s toy company, which is struggling to come up with new ideas and is in financial decline. With his newfound persona, Walter dreams up a new toy line that reverses the firm’s fortunes, and for a brief moment, it appears that The Beaver‘s about to head down the kind of feel-good comedy road we’ve travelled many times before. Except it doesn’t. Killen’s script flirts with clichés, but never gives in to them entirely.
While Walter struggles with his fractured mental state, his son, Porter, is having problems of his own. Simmering with resentment towards his father (even keeping a series of post-it notes on his wall that lists all the similarities he shares with his despised parent), Porter earns extra pocket money by writing essays on his students’ behalf, and receives a commission from Norah, who’s struggling to write her graduation speech. Apparently confident, intelligent and normal, Norah is really as troubled as Porter, and the two gradually form a relationship that serves as the film’s one unqualified glimmer of redemption.
While Walter’s toy company makes its rapid recovery from financial ruin, his own mental health continues to decline, and he finds his personality repressed by the increasingly controlling and sinister beaver.
It’s easy to forget, with the last few years dominated by his oft-reported improprieties, that Mel Gibson is capable of giving great, intense performances, and The Beaver serves as a handy reminder. His turn as the psychologically exhausted Walter Black is possibly the best in Gibson’s lengthy career, and he brings startling authenticity to a difficult role that many actors could have turned down flat.
The Beaver attempts to portray the impact mental illness can have on both sufferers and their families, and Gibson, as well as Foster and Killen, should be commended for not allowing The Beaver to descend fully into easier, crowd-pleasing territory. The film’s premise, with a man talking to people through a puppet, sounds like the basis for inane comedy, but it is instead used as a Trojan horse to bring what is a frequently neglected, even taboo subject to a wider audience.
The Beaver‘s uneasy shifts in tone won’t please everyone, and it’s likely that many will be turned off by its bleak drama. The concluding scenes could also be seen as a little trite, given the authenticity of much of what has gone before.
And yet, at the same time, you can’t ignore all the things that The Beaver does extremely well. Foster’s direction is excellent, and she’s clearly great with actors. Every member of the supporting cast, from Anton Yelchin to Jennifer Lawrence, is uniformly excellent.
As a relatively mainstream movie about the effects of mental illness, surely one of the most common yet least discussed afflictions in modern society, The Beaver is a flawed but supremely brave piece of filmmaking.